“The book is dead,” declared my fellow airline passenger, gleefully brandishing his Kindle. (A conviction that he later recanted when asked to power down during takeoff.) It’s the sort of bold statement that the publishing industry hears quite a bit these days.
In recent months, I’ve attended conference after conference with titles such as “Towards a Digital Future,” “The Next Wave,” and “The Future of the Written Word”—the latter recently drawing some 200 international delegates to Monza, Italy, for discussions on topics related to the sea change we’re witnessing in the world of books. Suddenly, I spend my days reading 20-page contracts from technology companies and contemplating e-book distribution with my colleagues.
While most publishers, including myself, welcome the opportunities that digital platforms bring to our somewhat old-school industry, the elephant(s) in the publishing house remain: What will become of the printed word? What is the future of book publishing? And what will all this mean to those who read?
As I talk with academic librarians whose policies prioritize e-books, and watch with fascination as the UI Press’s digital sales grow, I now believe the printed book will give way to electronic delivery in certain areas, such as scholarly publishing and the mass-market likes of Danielle Steele or John Grisham.
But, there will still be a place for printed books, particularly ones where the tangible product is part of the overall experience. Books on the visual arts may very well find a home on color e-readers and tablets, but a book about a work of art that is a work of art will always have a home on our shelves. Other books—like poetry—prove difficult to adapt to new media and remain primarily a print endeavor. Ironic, isn’t it, that one of humankind’s most ancient forms of written and oral storytelling resists digital reproduction?
The real threat to the printed book is not the iPad or my air companion’s Kindle. Instead, it’s the multitude of diversions available to today’s reader. This is not a generational issue. Many of us who grew up with print books are also the consumers who can afford e-readers, smartphones, and Netflix subscriptions, and who obsess over social networking. The concept that someone might try to reach us via e-mail, text message, or Facebook is infinitely alluring—and distracting.
Reading a long-form argument or story in the shape of a book is a skill. It takes discipline, commitment, and willpower. It demands your attention for more than three minutes at a time and it doesn’t always provide immediate gratification. But the rewards of reading are consistent—self-improvement and empowerment, the increased ability to think analytically and imaginatively, and the gift of leaving the pressures of this world behind, if only for a few hours.
Personally, I don’t care if you prefer to scroll through the pages or crack open a well-worn cover. Just as long as you’re reading a book.
Jim McCoy represented the University of Iowa and Iowa City at this past summer’s UNESCO international conference, “The Book Tomorrow: The Future of the Written Word.”. To read other UI experts’ opinions on the impact of e-books, click here.